Should House Democrats dump their new speaker?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 16 2006 7:37 PM

Dump Pelosi?

Let's put the new House speaker on probation.

I'll admit my timing could be better, since the incoming House Democrats, on a unanimous voice vote, just made Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaker of the House. But I think her party should give serious thought to dumping her.

The proximate reason, of course, is that she tried (and, thankfully, failed) to install as House majority leader Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. It's bad enough that Pelosi promoted Murtha (over the perfectly acceptable Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who won the caucus vote) in spite of Murtha's having once been named an unindicted co-conspirator in Abscam, a 1980 FBI sting operation in which G-men posing as representatives of an Arab sheikh offered $50,000 bribes to members of Congress. Even worse is that Pelosi persisted even after a videotape of Murtha's Abscam performance ("I'm not interested … at this point") turned up on the Web, and Democrats began fretting that they were about to erase all distinctions between themselves and the Abramoff-tainted Republicans from whom they'd only just wrenched a House majority. Almost before it began, Pelosi's honeymoon is over.

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As a preview of the sort of instincts Pelosi will display as House speaker, her steadfastness in supporting Murtha was discouraging on two levels. Most obviously, it suggested that Pelosi lacks a sincere interest in maintaining ethical standards. On a more Machiavellian level, it suggested that Pelosi harbors the crude and entirely false notion that in order to lead, she must demonstrate an ability to prevail even after she realizes, or ought to realize, that her initial judgment was faulty. This is the same infantile notion about power embraced by President Bush when he pretended, prior to the midterm elections, that he would keep Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. One plausible interpretation of the midterm-election results is that voters find it terrifying when a leader is unable, even implicitly, to admit error. Hoyer's victory is already being portrayed as a humiliating defeat for Pelosi, which it was. But it would have been an even greater defeat for Pelosi to push Murtha through and then suffer the consequences of her own idiotic decision. I doubt she understands that.

Pelosi is about to go through an almost-identical test once more. As my friend Ruth Marcus, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, outlined earlier this month—she can also take credit for jumping early on the Murtha story—Pelosi has apparently decided not to allow her fellow Californian Rep. Jane Harman to become chairman of the House intelligence committee, even though Harman is in line to do so. (In the cases of both Hoyer and Harman, the reasons for Pelosi's animus are cloudy and in all likelihood personal, which is discouraging in itself.) The problem is that next in line for the job is Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who, though acquitted in a criminal trial, was impeached by the House and convicted in the Senate of conspiring to extort a $150,000 bribe while he sat on the bench. (Hastings won election to the House after all this happened.) Pelosi, reportedly, has promised the post to Hastings, who is African-American and therefore has the backing of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus. The danger now is that Pelosi will honor that promise, creating precisely the same impression that she threatened to create with Murtha, i.e. that House Democrats who engage in bad behavior but manage to escape indictment or beat the rap in court are welcome to positions of high responsibility. In the case of Hastings, we lack videotape, and the evidence is circumstantial. Nonetheless, it is still, as Marcus wrote, "too much to explain away":

A suspicious pattern of telephone calls between Hastings and [close friend, Washington lawyer William] Borders at key moments in the case; Borders's apparent insider knowledge of developments in the criminal case; Hastings's appearance at a Miami hotel, as promised by Borders as a signal that the judge had agreed to the payoff; a cryptic telephone conversation between the two men that appears to be a coded discussion of the bribe arrangement.

Consider: Hastings, a federal judge, gets word from Borders's lawyer that Borders has been arrested for conspiring to bribe him and that the FBI wants to interview him. Instead of calling the FBI agents whose names and numbers he's been given, Hastings leaves his hotel without checking out and heads to the airport outside Baltimore instead of National, where there's an earlier flight. At BWI, Hastings calls his girlfriend, has her call him back at a different pay phone, then asks her to leave the house to call him from a pay phone, then calls her back from a different pay phone. He doesn't speak to the FBI until they track him down at the girlfriend's house later that night.

Perhaps Murtha and Hastings should start a caucus of their own for House members who can't seem to close the deal.

Here's what I propose. Let Pelosi remain speaker for now. But let her know that, before the new Congress even begins, she has placed herself on probation. If she chooses Hastings to chair House intelligence, that's two strikes. One more strike—even a minor misstep—and House Democrats will demonstrate that they, unlike Speaker-elect Pelosi and President Bush, know how to correct their mistakes. If this scenario strikes you as unrealistic, I will only say this: Remember Bob Livingston.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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